Chapter IV. The Praetorian Guard.
The Praetorian Guard.
The cool night air was a pleasant change from the usual hot and sun of the day. A breeze blew through the large grounds of the large grand palace of Emperor Nero. The banquet was well under way, though not everyone was sitting and eating. People where milling here and there along the gardens of the palace grounds, though of course the main action was in the grand banquet hall. Dancers performed their arts on the floors, wine poured everywhere, and there was a sense of drunken merriment in the air. Nero sat at the head of the banquet, Tigellinus at his side. Surrounding the Emperor were his closest Senators and advisors, the rest of the guests spread out among the food and drink.
Camilla had sprawled herself by the table on a cushion, a glass of wine in hand, surrounded by her friends and admirers. Two men were particularly attentive to her. One looked old enough to be her father; the second was much young, somewhere in his early thirties. Out of the corner of her eye Camilla watched the door and took in all who passed through it. The little group was in a heated conversation and discussion, but Camilla was a little too busy observing the entrance to really pay attention to what was being said.
"Camilla!" A hand on her shoulder made her jerk and turn to face her companions. "You weren't listening to me where you?" Octavia said with a little laugh.
"Not really," Camilla confessed. "I'm afraid I got lost in thought for a moment. What was it again?"
"We were discussing the Christian sect." Lucius Caecilius, who was sitting nearest to Camilla, replied. "And Octavia wanted to know what you think of them."
"I don't really think anything of them." Camilla said with a shrug. "I mean, I don't personally know any . The only place I've seen them is in the arena and they do provide very interesting entertainment. I don't even know exactly what it is they preach and why it is so dangerou. Never cared."
"Did you notice that no matter how many times they are invited to kneel before Nero and renounce their faith they never do? Even thought it could save their lives." Octavia pointed out.
"Not always," Camilla dared to argue. "There are exceptions."
"No, there aren't," Octavia retorted, the scowl on her face showing she was upset at being challenged.
"Yes, there are! You obviously were not at the games the other day when this one girl ran up and said she would put aside her faith if only they would spare her life."
"Oh, I didn't know that," Octavia was obviously intrigued. "What happened?"
"Nothing interesting, she was granted her life and freedom."
"Ah, but that is not the end of the story," Luicus put in. "A day or two later she killed herself."
Camilla choked on her drink. "She what?"
"I'm serious, she killed herself! From what I heard she said she was so ashamed she couldn't live with herself and would go the way that her brothers and sisters went or something like that. They put her back in jail and she went to the lions that very evening."
"That's not exactly suicide," Octavia pointed out.
"No, it is," Camilla backed Lucius. "Honestly, I'm sure you'll agree with me that going to the guards and stating that you have gone back to your former faith and having them send you to the arena of your own accord is really the same thing as committing suicide. I mean, she could have just silently gone back to her faith without making a bit scene out everything."
Raising her hand, Camilla signaled for a slave to bring her a little more wine. "We have seen so many Christians being killed ever since the fire burned through the city. Do you really think it was them who started it?"
"Of course they did." Senator Gaius Tacitus, the second man beside Camilla at last entered the conversation. He had an air of importance and spoke in a 'know it all' voice. "Do you know anything about Christians? Don't you know what they preach?"
"You were not paying attention, Senator," Camilla chided, waving her finger in Tacticus' face. "Or you would have heard how I said I never met any and I don't know a single thing about their religion or their ideology. But apparently you do."
"Of course I do. They speak about the coming of another kingdom and some king other than Caesar. They speak of taking over Rome and that one day Rome will fall. ROME, the eternal Rome will fade away and become nothing more than dust and ruin. No doubt they are planning this fall and the fire was an attempt at it."
"It was very creative." Camilla smirked. "Come now, even you have to admit that setting Rome on fire was very spectacular. Why, it was fascinating to watch it from my vantage point."
"I believe you were not in the city when the fire happened?" Lucius cut it
"I wasn't, but even if I had been, there was no harm to me. The fire never even came near our home. My villa is located in one of the three that wasn't touch by the fire. Quite unlike our poor Servius Quinctius." Camilla winked at the man sitting opposite her. He scowled in return. Quinctius had lost his grand villa to the fire and was still getting over the fact that prized possessions and irreplaceable valuables had been lost forever and he had to rebuild the whole thing from scratch.
"Where were you when Rome burned?" Octiavia eyed Camilla suspiciously.
"The fire took place last summer, so naturally I was at our summer villa. I can't stand Rome in the summer. Heat, dirt, noise everywhere. Aeliana and I spent four months there, thus missing all the fire action. Marcus remained in here; he hasn't visited our summer villa in I don't know how long. He was never much of a country person, always preferring city life. Anyway, we were talking about the Christians, not where I spent my summer. If you ask me, I really think they should start doing something more interesting with them. I mean, don't you tire of them constantly being sent to the lions or burning at the stake? There must be some other, more spectacular way to kill them."
"Camilla, you are a woman that is hard to please." Lucius laughed.
"If I would be easy to please, it wouldn't be fun for anyone." Camilla replied with a light brush on Lucius shoulder and a coy glance at him.
"Honestly Camilla." Octavia once more cut in. "you are getting to be rather old and you are not yet married."
"Yes," Senator Tacitus put in. "Certainly you plan to do so."
"Plan to do what?" Camilla lifted one eyebrow.
"You are planning on marrying, are you not?"
"I'm not planning on marrying you if that is what you mean." Camilla said, licking her lips and rolling her head a little. "But of course, I do plan to marry. I must marry, if I plan to lead a proper life of a high standing Roman citizen."
Gaius Tacitus frowned at her, anger and puzzlement in his eyes, but Camilla pretended not to notice. With ease and grace she diverted the subject away from her lack of a husband and to the gladiator fights and chariot races.
The party continued going, wine flowed in unmeasured quantities and the merriment became more and more drunken. only Camille kept herself in a relatively sober and did not allow herself to get overly drunk; which could hardly be said for the company in which she sat. Lucius spoke out in poetry to her, calling her the goddess of love and beauty, while Tacitus leaned over and kissed her neck and shoulders in a drunken swoon. Camilla allowed them to so patronize her, all the while, watching the door way, waiting for someone to appear.
It was well into the night when at last through the gates of the hall a man entered. He was young, thirty years of age, with a disciplined and serious air about him. Dressed in the garb of a praetorian prefect guard, he was strong and fit and ruggedly handsome. Camilla caught sight of him the minute he walked through the doors.
"I'm going to refill my glass and find my brother," she said in a lazy voice as she got up from the cushions.
"Stay with us, stay with me, oh mortal that is the envy of Venus herself." Lucius slurred. "I wonder Camilla, if you have any idea how beautiful you truly are?"
"And I wonder, Lucius, if you have any idea how drunk you are?" Camilla laughed, waving her finger in his face. "I'm afraid I really must go and search out my brother?"
"Why do you want your brother?" Tacitus asked in a voice just as slurred and drawn out as his fellow senator's.
"None of your business," Camilla replied, trying to free herself from Lucius' embrace and avoid Tacitus' hand as he tried to keep her from going. "I will only say that with the direction you two are heading for, I need my brother to keep my safe. That is," here she cocked her head and a coy smile came to her lips as she gazed right into Lucius' eyes. "Before I have a husband to do that for me." Once she had succeeded in releasing herself from Lucius' grasp, she got up to leave but Tacitus' hand arrested her arm.
"You can't leave me, come, return to my embrace." He said, reaching for another glass of wine with his free hand.
"I seem to remember being in Lucius' embrace this entire time, never once in yours." Camilla retorted in a low voice. "Gods of Rome, is that your wife over there?"
"Where?" Tacitus turned his head sharply in the direction Camilla had pointed. Camilla used this opportunity to wrench her hand free and duck into the crowd of merrymakers. When Tacitus turned around he found her gone.
"What did the words she said to you mean?" Tacitus looked over and asked Lucius.
"Why should you care?" Lucius replied with a smirk. "Remember, she's not planning on marrying you."
Tacitus glared at Lucius and rose unsteadily to his feet with the intention of trying to catch up with Camilla. Camilla, however, was way ahead of him. She was nearly at the entrance of the great hall when she bumped into Senator Claudius who was also making his way towards the exit.
"Ah Camilla, on your way home already?" Claudius asked.
"I'm afraid so. I'm tired and have a headache and all this noise and music is only making it worse." Camilla stated. "What of you, Claudius, what reason do you have for leaving so early?"
"I'm thoroughly bored." Claudius shrugged. "We're getting to that state where soon everyone will just doze off in their drunken sleep and I figured I might as well sleep in my own comfortable bed instead of here."
"You have a point there, Claudius. Well, don't allow me to detain you."
Claudius gave Camilla a sympathetic smile and exited the hall. Camilla lingered back till he was gone then walked through the doors herself. Outside the banquet hall it was pretty quiet, with a few drunk men and women wandering about here and there, arms entangled, laughing and giggling over something. Camilla made her way down the corridor but hadn't gone far when a hand reach out and pulled her into a shadowy corner. Camilla gave a quiet gasp and turned to see who had dared to grab her in such a maner. A pair of dark brown eyes gazed at her with admiration and a hint of reproach.
"What did I tell you about your terrible kidnapping habit?" Camilla whispered with a shake of her head. The statement brought a twinkle to the adoring dark eyes.
"Such a naughty, naughty man!" Camilla continued, taking on a more teasing tone. "Keeping me waiting for so long. I wonder, De-ci-mus," she spoke his name slowly, putting accent on all three syllables.,"if you realize just how late you are."
"Were you waiting for me?" he asked, a smile lighting up his rough, but very handsome features.
"I sat the entire time in that corner and did nothing but watch the door."
He raised his eyebrows just a bit and let out a chuckle. "Didn't I see you in company?"
"Of course you did! You try being alone in a crowded place like that. They swarmed me right and left and I couldn't do anything about it. I got away from them the moment I saw you walk through the door."
Decimus let out a laugh and looked her up and down with awe and approval. His eyes rested on the intricat silver necklace hanging around her neck ."You still have it." He said, reaching out to trace it with his finger. "You wore it today."
"Ah, you noticed." Camilla replied with a laugh. "I had thought you had long forgotten that you gave this thing to me."
"I forgot? You honestly think I would forget something I took so much care to choose. I was sure you had long forgotten about it, you probably have a good many similar trinkets."
"But I have only one given to me by Decimus." Camilla coyly said. "And since I have only one of it, I must be extra careful with it. You've been busy with your duties for so long! Two, three weeks?"
"There! When I found out you were going to come, I had to wear this. But I will confess that I did somehow manage to break it. I don't know how, perhaps my slave or my sister had been going through my things, and the lock broke and I only found out today when I was preparing to leave. You have no idea of all the trouble I went through to have this fixed on time."
"Couldn't you have just worn something else?"
"Maybe." Camilla whispered as her fingered traced the scar that was located just under Decimus' ear. "Maybe I could have worn something else, but I wanted to wear this! It brings out something special in me, don't you think?"
"I do. That's why I gave it to you."
Camilla laughed. "So you really are free for the entire night?"
"Yes, I came here as soon as I got off duty."
Camilla giggled coyly and lowering her voice, brought her mouth so close to Decimus' ear that he could feel her soft breathing. "I'm leaving right now." She whispered. He turned his head a bit and looked at her with unhappy shock.
"I don't want to attract any unwanted attention." Camilla went on. "You know as well as I do that the one thing all the people in this room are looking for is some sort of scandal. Everyone at the banquet thinks I have gone home! I can't afford being seen with you, so you we must go separate ways and meet at the usual place." She winked at Decimus, her eyes full of mischief. "After all the night is young and so are we." Her lips brushed his scar and with an inviting smile she ran off.
Decimus watched as she disappeared. He still needed to report to Tigellinous and change out of his uniform, it would attract uncessary attention. With a rather frustrated sigh, Decimus went to report to Praetorian Prefect, but his thoughts were still only of the dark eyed beauty. If Praetorians married, he would have taken the young noblewoman as his wife long ago. As it was, he could only see her from time to time in secret, all to protect her reputation. And until the end of time, that was how it was going to be.
But he had resigned himself to this fate. As far as the young guard was concerned better Camilla in secret than no Camilla at all.
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